Saturday, September 11, 2010

Paris Is Full of a Sense of Intrigue, Inferiority

Note: Please allow me to disclose that I received a complimentary copy of the title in question. Also, strong language appears (in quotation) in the final paragraph of this review.

It's probably not news to anyone that Americans have a love affair with Europe. I remember the envy I felt with a friend travelled to Belgum for work and spent his evenings sipping abbey ale and writing in a room with a view of centuries-old streets. When the life your nation scarcely stretches back two-hundred years, you can't help but feel a little awed and intimidated at the breadth of history in the old country. That simultaneous sense of intrigue and inferiority informs Sarah Hina's Plum Blossoms in Paris, a debut novel centered on an American tradition -- taking to the road to outrun your problems.

Daisy Lockhart had believed her longtime boyfriend Andy was the one, the guy with whom she'd settle down and raise a family. So his matter-of-fact email saying that no, it's really not you, it's me hit her like the proverbial slap across the face. Heartbroken, Daisy flies to Paris on a whim, hoping an indefinite stay in Europe's most romantic burg would take her mind off her old love. But he hadn't counted on meeting Mathieu. The handsome tour guide and sometime writer is fiery where Andy was mellow, passionate rather than dulled by routine. Swept away by sudden romance, Daisy faces a choice: Should she return to the land of her birth or learn to call The City of Light home?

Although I have
a rather rocky relationship with chick lit, I was hoping to enjoy Paris, not least because of Hina's prose. Darn it, but she can write, melding vivid descriptions with striking metaphors that might make John Donne wince with envy. If only she'd chosen a character other than Daisy to cluster all that fine prose around. Perhaps inveterate insecurity is simply part of the genre, but I quickly tired of the constant cataloguing of Daisy's personal flaws. She dislikes her breast size, her complexion, her posture, her education, her childbearing capabilities (an irony given the amount of unprotected sex in which she indulges) and -- most of all -- her Americanness.

That dislike of national origins opens another area of concern for the novel, namely politics. There's nothing wrong with airing political views, but wisdom suggests that doing so in narrative form requires a light touch. Paris lacks it. In fact, Daisy's ruminations make talk radio appear nuanced by comparison. It seems as though on every other page she's lambasting President Bush as "a raging fuckup" or calling Karl Rove his "thumb-up-your-ass-ist governess." A chance encounter at an Ethiopian restaurant with someone who looks like the 45th Vice President gets Daisy misty about the 2000 elections. "Where have you gone, Al Gore?" she muses. "A nation returns its lonely eyes to you. We'll accept the stiffness of your spine, as long as it's connected to a conscience." You get the idea. It isn't exactly nuanced. That's a shame, because Hina is obviously talented. Here's to hoping her next novel blooms into something truly brilliant.

(Picture: CC 2009 by
tibchris)

8 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

I was hoping it would be a great book about Paris too. Cara Black's series is enjoyable, I'm told.

Donna Hole said...

"Heartbroken, Daisy flies to Paris on a whim, hoping an indefinite stay in Europe's most romantic burg would take her mind off her old love."

Unfortunately, that single line is all it takes to turn me off a novel. I like romance, in moderation, but I've never liked category romance.

A good job on the review. I like your sentiments about Europe. It does give one a sense of permanence while looking at all that history.

I've been browsing your earlier posts too. Enjoyable reads all. Congratulations on the publication.

......dhole

Loren Eaton said...

Patti,

It has some wonderful descriptions of Paris in it. Hina works up truly unique metaphors about the city.

Loren Eaton said...

Donna,

Believe it or not, I'm not adverse to romance. True, I prefer mine with bullets and car chases, but a really well-done one doesn't necessarily need to have them.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I'd actually love to read a book whose protagonist had such aggressive political ideas, but in which they don't feel like sermons. But I think for it to be any good, you'd have to get a glimpse outside of her perspective--maybe she gets called out on her anger by her liberal friends (who wonder why she is so aggressive); maybe she meets a conservative who makes good arguments that she is literally unable to deal with. She doesn't even have to look wrong--she can be mostly justified--she just needs to seem human.

However, sadly that often isn't the case for real people. I would guess that, apart from family members, most people intentionally surround themselves with people who agree with them, so that personally hating and insulting the political opposition becomes valid and reasonable, if not common.

Loren Eaton said...

CR,

I think it's very difficult to address political subjects in narrative forms. I'm not sure why, but I've yet to read a story that I think succeeds at it.

Jennifer said...

New to your blog. Full disclosure: I adore Sarah and enjoyed Plum Blossoms. I don't think the political opining bothered me similarly (I didn't even remember it until reading your review here) because of the first person narrative. Most people I hang out with have strong opinions (diverse) and with the first person narrative, I would expect the character's opinions to be expressed. I wonder if you felt somehow that it wasn't seamless, or that it was intrusive? I didn't feel that way personally, but I'm curious about your view.

I recently re-read "On Beauty" by Zadie Smith. Are you familiar with it? In it there is a larger debate about affirmative action--the liberal persepctive is represented through a white professor, and the conservative position through an African-American one and they are fabulous rivals. She draws her characters so fully and brilliantly (and satirically) that you do feel as though you are just reading about these people and not about affirmative action, if you will.

One of my all time favorite books is "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" which again is in the first person and is full of expressed political and national disillusionment.

So I guess I just popped in to say that I think this can be well done, but I agree that it has to feel organic to the character and not as though the character is a vehicle for the author's opinions.

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks for stopping by, Jennifer! It's nice to see a new face. I think some of my issues with the way in which the politics were dealt with in Plum Blossoms related an implied agreement with Daisy's viewpoint. I really do like a little nuance. Tease me; make me consider alternative viewpoints; give me diametrically opposed (yet likeable) characters. James Maxey does a good job with this in his fantasy novels.

Thanks for the recommendations, by the way. They sound interesting!